Monday, August 16, 2010

Czechs and Slovaks: The Truth of the Matter

I spent most of today on the couch holding a small bundle of pain and suffering, so I don't have too long of a post to offer.* Baby K hasn't been well all weekend, but today was particularly bad. Got some medicine at the doctor's today, fortunately, which seemed to help a little by evening. Poor sweet pea.

I've still got one question left to answer from my questions session a couple of weeks ago. Leslie asks:
How significant ARE the differences between Czech and Slovak, linguistically and/or culturally? According to a Czech or Slovak? According to a well-informed outsider?? I've always been curious about that!
I've talked about that some here. Basically Czech and Slovak are very similar but not the same, sort of like different types of English if English had bigger differences in regional spelling rules, for example. I like to tease the Slovak of my dreams that Slovak doesn't actually exist as an independent language, since Slovak looks like Czech with, like, all the words misspelled. Conversely, he contends that Czech is actually Slovak spoken with a speech impediment.

If you speak one language fluently, you should understand the other with relatively little effort. It's kind of a question of learning to twist your brain around the different sounds to the words. There are some common words that are different between the languages, and the word endings are slightly different, but usually in a pretty predictable way. For example, a Czech ou or í often changes to a Slovak ú, or a Czech word starting with z (followed by unvoiced consonant z is pronounced s) is often pronounced AND written s in Slovak.

As a LEARNER of one of the languages, it is more difficult to understand the other, since you have less practice listening to it. Of all the people I know in Prague, the Slovak of my dreams was (almost) the last I started understanding. (The last was a friend who mumbles, never enunciates and often makes complete non sequiteurs in conversation. I eventually realized that even some of our Czech friends don't understand him sometimes, so I felt like less of a loser!)

With plenty of exposure, I eventually started to understand spoken Slovak, first just when my Slovak spoke and later when any Slovak spoke. It's a process... I learned to read Slovak by reading what the Slovak of my dreams wrote. He gave me a three page document to read and 45 minutes later couldn't believe I was still reading! I had to pronounce each word in my head and think, "Now what Czech word does that sound like?" to figure out what it said. Once you learn the spelling rules, though, it's not so bad. It does take some mind bending, though, when you're used to just the one language.

As to native speakers, I think it depends on who you ask. Native (or fluent) speakers of about my age or older usually understand both languages without any problem, since they were brought up in a single country and listening to the evening news in both languages, etc. Slovaks seem to understand (and speak) Czech better than Czechs understand and speak Slovak, because there are more Czechs and the Czech market is bigger, so Slovaks watch more Czech TV and read more Czech books than vice versa. That's a generalization, though, and just because you understand the other language doesn't mean you can speak it convincingly, just like I couldn't speak British English convincingly even after living here. My husband, for example, perceives them as actually one language - he can write and speak both when he wants, but when he hears or reads something, he literally doesn't notice if it's Czech or Slovak. I know he's not the only one, either.

Younger Czechs and Slovaks understand each other pretty well, but there are more phrases or words that they don't recognize, because their exposure to the other language is less than in previous generations. We notice this in Prague, that young people occasionally look at the Slovak like he's from Mars: "WHAT did you just say?" And little children sometimes have a really hard time understanding, to the point that it's not a bad idea to attempt to speak the child's native language to them in order to be understood. They really aren't used to the differences in the languages yet.

There you go for linguistically. Culturally speaking, Czechs and Slovaks are pretty similar to each other from an outside perspective. They have more in common than not. Shared film industry, books, music, some shared history. But from the inside, there are definite differences in attitude and some customs! Generally the west-east relationship between the two countries really reminds me of the dynamic between the north and south in the United States. Northerners (Westerners) often see themselves as more sophisticated and educated than the country bumpkins in the south (east), and southerners (easterners) often see themselves as more warm and welcoming than the cold, rude northerners (westerners). This dynamic seems to apply between Czechs (west) and Slovaks (east) as well as west and east within each countries, i.e. Bratislava in western Slovakia takes the same attitude towards Kosice in eastern Slovakia as Prague in Czech Republic takes towards all of Slovakia. And everyone thinks that about Ukraine. :) This is, of course, another big generalization, and like all massive generalizations it sometimes has some validity and sometimes is totally off-base. It's definitely more of a friendly rivalry than a cut-throat hatred. Except when the hockey teams are playing each other...

I hope that cleared things up entirely! Or at least got the waters good and muddy.

* Actually, it seems like it got long after all while I wasn't looking. Who needs sleep?

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